Young Claudius wandered then, little one, wandered for days, steadily away from his sister and the bear that was her husband, away from the valley kingdom where he had been a prince, journeying deeper and deeper into the forest.
He wasn’t sure where he was going, as we often don’t know where we are going, just traveling deeper, searching for something that he couldn’t describe but knew he would recognize when he found it.
His hair grew long and his beard full. The soles of his shoes thinned. The cloak that Ursula and Arthur had given him grew tattered and his pack lightened. Sometimes, as he lay on the soft bed of pine needles and leaves, looking up through the bright blue of the sky through the soft green leaves, he wondered why.
His dreams, when he slept, confused him. Running through stone hallways, down forest paths, pursued by something. Or flying high above a walled city and a castle, dodging arrows until he was driven out to glide over a wide forest, spying prey from high above and striking downward, down to a deep loch, talons outstretched for a fish. Or maybe he was the fish, swimming through the dark green of the loch, pursuing smaller fish, jaws snapping, sometimes circling back towards something he could glimpse through the water, something that lured him back.
And then he’d awaken to hunger.
One morning, he felt that he could no longer rise, no longer go onward. He managed to struggle into a seated position, his back against a tree, too tired to even weep. A small sparrow landed beside him, cocking its head one way then the other.
“Come,” it said to him. “I know where there are some nuts you can eat. I will guide you.”
Claudius staggered to his feet and the sparrow rested lightly on his shoulder. “They are not far. Then you can eat until your belly is full.”
As they walked, the sparrow began to tell a story, a story of a sad princess.
“I’ve heard that one.” Claudius was surprised by the raspy sound of his voice and realized it was out of practice.
“You have heard the story of the bear,” replied the sparrow. “But what happened after that? Do you know?”
Claudius shook his head, felt it go on shaking, and had to stop, one hand on a tree, to catch his breath.
“I will continue,” the sparrow said.
The Second Brother
After her brother had left the castle, the princess felt terribly guilty. She had not meant to turn her brother into a bear. And it seemed that no one had recognized him – they thought the bear had somehow come out of the woods, made its way through the busy streets of the city, through the gates into the castle, and all the way upstairs, where it seized and ate Arthur, leaving no trace of blood, just his shredded clothing outside her door.
It seemed foolish to her. A willful ignorance of fact, as preposterous as that fact would seem.
She felt ashamed to have lost her temper and used her mother’s magic in a way that her mother never would have. She somehow felt that, if she could just see Arthur again, she could return him to his previous self.
But she was not to be given that chance.
“I want to come with you,” she told her father and her other brothers. “He’s my brother, too.”
“It’s much too dangerous,” they told her. “That bear has destroyed your brother, he cannot be allowed to live. And you would only slow us down and put us at risk to protect you.”
“Stay here,” her brother said as she followed him into the stables, “prepare a great feast to celebrate our successful hunt.”
“But I can help,” she told him.
“How can you help?” He demanded. “You’ve never been on a hunt –“
“Because you would never take me!”
“– and you have no skills of the spear or the arrow or the knife.”
She glanced about, for the moment they were alone, the light streaming in through the window high above, lit the boards beneath her feet, picked up straw in the air, turning it golden, as if it were a light she could ride into the sky.
“I can help,” she muttered mutinously.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he turned his back on her.
“Don’t walk away while I am talking with you,” she shouted, , feeling her rage rising again.
“There is nothing more for you to say.” He continued to walk.
“Stop!” She cried. “Stop!” And then the rage came out of her again and suddenly her brother was gone in a flurry of wings.
She watched, stunned, as he rose, crying out, up the shaft of light and through the window high above.
She walked quietly out of the stables, unable to say a word.
The men looked at her.
“Where is your brother?” The King asked. “We need to start the hunt.”
She shook her head and gazed up at the sky, at the eagle circling there, high above.
Men ran to the stables, ran out again, shouting. A tumult of movement, of activity. She walked silently through it, through the chaos in the great hall, up the stairs past people racing down, up to her room where she shut the new door. From her window, she could see beyond the city to the great forest that stretched as far as the eye could see.
And the eagle wheeling high above, until it grew too small, just a speck in the distance before it vanished.
Here the sparrow stopped and Claudius, who had been walking all this time, stopped walking.
The sparrow fluttered to the ground, drawing the prince’s eyes there, and to the feast of nuts that had dropped from the tree. He fell to his knees, gathering them, suddenly filled with the energy to search for rocks to crack them with.
He hardly noticed when the sparrow fluttered away.